The Grid: separating fact from fiction
Grid computing revolutionizes the way scientists share and analyse data by enabling researchers to share computer power and data storage over the Internet. Grid projects already help researchers search for new wheat genes, predict storms, or simulate the Sun’s interior. The 7000-odd physicists working on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider will rely entirely on grid computing, specifically on the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, to connect them with LHC data.
But recent reports on “the Grid” being developed for the Large Hadron Collider have promised much more than the technology can now – and in some cases will ever – deliver. So what about grid computing is fact, and what is fiction?
Fiction: The Grid will replace the Internet.
Fact: Grid computing, like the World Wide Web, is an application of the Internet. When the LHC turns on, data will be transferred from CERN to 11 large computing centres around the world at rates of up to 10 gigabits per second. Those large centres will then send and receive data from 200 smaller centres worldwide. All this data transfer will take place over the Internet. Dedicated fibre-optic links are used between CERN and the large centres; the smaller centres connect together through research networks and sometimes the standard public Internet.
Fiction: People will be able to download movies 10,000 times faster using the Grid.
Fact: First, in order to get such data-transfer rates, individuals would have to do what the large particle physics computing centres have done, and set up (or lease) a dedicated fibre-optic link between their home and the source of their data. Second, today’s grid computing technologies and projects are geared toward research and businesses with highly specific needs, such as vast amounts of data to process and analyse within large, worldwide collaborations. While other computer users may benefit from grid computing through better weather prediction or more effective medications, they may not be logging onto a computing grid anytime soon. (Something called “cloud computing”, where your programs are run in a central location rather than on your own computer, may also be on the horizon.)
Fiction: The Grid was invented at CERN.
Fact: The first pioneering steps in grid computing were taken in the US. The term “grid computing” was first used in a book by Grid pioneers Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman, as a metaphor for making computing power accessible in the same way as electrical power. The LHC Computing Grid Project, led by CERN, uses resources contributed by grid projects around the globe. The Enabling Grids for E-sciencE project in Europe (also led by CERN), the Open Science Grid in the US, GridPP in the UK, and the INFN Grid in Italy are some of the independent grid projects that provide support for the computing needs of many areas of research and contribute to the LHC Computing Grid.
Adapted from an article originally published in Symmetry Breaking (http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/breaking/).